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September 5, 2013

Five keys to victory

Here are five keys for the Gamecocks to take down the Georgia Bulldogs in Athens.

1. Deflate the crowd with a strong start. Filled with 92,746 fans who detest the thought of falling 0-2 to a team that humiliated them by 28 points last October, Sanford Stadium is going to be loud. Loud enough to affect South Carolina's snap count, offensive rhythm, and the composure of individual players. The solution: Strike early and take the crowd out of the game.

Spurrier is no stranger to fast starts; his teams have come roaring out of the gates in several big wins over the past few seasons, and they've paid the price in big games on the road when they haven't. A deep pass to Shaq Roland or Damiere Byrd could do the trick, though it might be safer (and more effective) to grind out a 16-play, eight-minute drive that closes with a Mike Davis 2-yard touchdown run and the emotional draining of the 'Dawg faithful.

2. The defense must own the line of scrimmage. Watching Georgia's dynamic rushing tandem of Todd Gurley and Keith Marshall combine for 197 yards and three touchdowns against Clemson last Saturday, it was apparent how much damage they can inflict when allowed into open space. They're both fast enough to stretch a 6-yard run into a 60-yard touchdown dash, but they also eat safeties and defensive backs for lunch. If the Gamecocks can't stuff them at the line before they build momentum, it could be a long night for South Carolina's front seven (re: LSU 2012).

"The way you stop any great back is you control the line of scrimmage, and that's what South Carolina did (last year)," said ESPN's Todd Blackledge after South Carolina's practice Wednesday afternoon. "They dominated the line of scrimmage, and there was no room for those guy to run. If the offensive line has the advantage up there and those guys get a little space, then they're harder to tackle in the second level of your defense. When you slow them down at the first level at the point of attack, then they're easier to deal with."

3. Pressure Aaron Murray. In seven-on-sevens - where he has time to throw - Murray must be a passing fiend. It's incredible the way the Preseason All-SEC first-teamer can locate his passes, fit the pigskin through windows of defenders and loft touch throws just beyond the outstretched fingertips of opposing cornerbacks. But for all the pinpoint accuracy, for all the talent Murray exhibits against teams like Buffalo, Florida Atlantic and Ole Miss, he becomes a different quarterback when his offensive line can't give him time.

It's been evident over his four-year career as Georgia's starter, but highlighted last Saturday in Death Valley. Murray doesn't perform well under the big lights, with hulking bodies bearing down on him, or in games where he's taking physical punishment on most of his drop backs. It's why he's 1-9 against top-15 teams and 1-6 against top 10 opponents, with the lone win coming against Florida last season in a game where Murray threw three interceptions.

If Jadeveon Clowney and company can match the performance of Clemson's defensive line from a week ago, we'll see Murray revert to his "deer in the headlights" pose, which hasn't been a good look for him lately.

4. Get Mike Davis and Brandon Wilds going. Post-Lattimore, the running game continues to be the bread and butter of South Carolina's offense. And Davis and Wilds should stand to see more touches than the 24 combined carries allotted to them against North Carolina, especially if South Carolina maneuvers past the early-game butterflies and into an offensive rhythm by the end of the first quarter.

The Bulldogs, who gave up 197 rushing yards to Clemson a week ago, are struggling to replace seven starters who were taken in the 2013 NFL Draft. It'll be interesting to see how South Carolina running backs coach Everett Sands divvies the carries between Davis and Wilds to throw off a linebacking corps that lost first-rounders Jarvis Jones and Alec Ogletree over the offseason.

If nothing else, the rushing game should be effective enough to allow Spurrier room for creative playcalling and to keep Georgia's defense from blitzing Connor Shaw every down.

5. Take care of the football. It's a priority for every team from Pop Warner to the NFL, but playing in a hostile environment on the road ratchets up the importance of protecting the rock. Take the 2011 South Carolina - Georgia game in Athens for instance, where the Bulldogs outgained the Gamecocks 436 yards to 395, had eight more first downs, won the possession battle, and still found themselves on the losing end of the 45-42 shootout.

Why? Because Georgia played irresponsibly, putting the ball on the ground four times and throwing an interception. And it just so happened that Georgia's three turnovers turned the tide in South Carolina's favor. The third quarter saw Stephon Gilmore scoop up a Georgia fumble and carry it 57 yards to the Georgia 5-yard line, setting up Stephen Garcia for an 8-yard touchdown run.

Aaron Murray threw a 25-yard pick-six to Antonio Allen to give South Carolina a 28-20 lead, and Melvin Ingram recovered Murray's fourth-quarter fumble for another defensive touchdown, slamming the door on Georgia's comeback hopes and sending Bulldog paraphernalia to the parking lots.

Possession, yards and big plays are nice. But a team that makes more mistakes than it gives up will have a hard time winning on foreign turf.

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